City Lit Blog

Coronavirus and the impact on people with protected characteristics

Story added 1st May 2020

Driven by a concern that people with protected characteristics are disproportionately affected by Covid-19 and the Government’s response, including the emergency Coronavirus Bill, The Women and Equalities Committee of the UK Parliament has called for written submissions to review.  City Lit submitted evidence on the experiences of the Deaf and hard of hearing communities and also the Learning Disabilities Community.  We have also made recommendations to the UK Government as to changes which should be made to rectify existing issues which have been exacerbated by Coronavirus restrictions.

City Lit is the largest adult education college in London, where Londoners have come to learn since 1919.  We believe that everyone has a right to learn and improve themselves – and we work hard to inspire people’s passions, and help them realise their ambitions. We teach over 30,000 students a year – aged 19 to 90 from across every London borough, as well as many who travel from outside London and overseas.

We are unique - the ages of our students, the variety and nature of the courses we provide and our large pan-London catchment area. We also have an extensive creative industries provision – covering visual arts; performing arts; digital and design; as well as considerable provision for people with learning disabilities, the Deaf community and disenfranchised communities. 

Deaf and hard of hearing communities

The impact on the Deaf and hard of hearing communities has been swift and, like the impact on so many communities, has simply magnified existing inequalities for this group.  Our main observations regarding impact have been in the following areas:

Communication and technology

It is our belief that the pervasive attitude that Deaf people can simply read written English to gain vital information which is not presented for them in BSL is discriminatory and in the present situation, deeply dangerous.

The UK Government does not, as a matter of course, provide interpretation of its key messages in BSL, although the Scottish Assembly does.  Deaf people are able to find interpreted versions of the Government’s Daily Briefings on the BBC News website and various Deaf charities such as RAD[1] , BDA[2] and Sign Health[3] are creating videos interpreting public information for the Deaf community.

The Deaf community is also relying heavily on sharing information between peer groups and voluntary translation of information.  One concern of this practice is the spread of misinformation such as links between Coronavirus and 5G, and Coronavirus ‘cures’. 

City Lit recently supported a petition to compel them to make a commitment to provide BSL interpreters alongside any emergency announcements made.  The Government’s response was to defer that responsibility to broadcasters as part of their mandate for accessible provision.  We believe this responsibility must sit with central Government.

Action: The Government must commit to recognising BSL as a British language and provide important information to the Deaf community in BSL rather than relying on broadcasters and charities to fill this void.

The swift move to working from home has also been a challenge for Deaf people and those who are hard of hearing.  City Lit recently worked with The Guardian to highlight the issues these communities face.  Within the article How home working leaves deaf people out of the loop during coronavirus[4], Rob Geaney, head of campaigns and public affairs at Action on Hearing Loss, said that they had found “Home working is a huge challenge for people living with hearing loss. They are at greater risk of further isolation due to social-distancing measures. While many people will use phone and video calls to stay in contact with friends and families and work colleagues, people with hearing loss, especially those who lip-read... will be excluded from these interactions.”  As identified in the City Lit #HearMyLips campaign[5], currently One in six people in the UK suffer from hearing loss.

Action: The Government should commit to training more lipreading tutors, to deliver more lipreading classes and raise awareness of the impact of acquired hearing loss across the UK.

Continued access to education

The rapid shift to online education from many providers has been particularly difficult for Deaf or hard of hearing people due to the technology issues outlined above, compounded in particular for BSL users by low level English skills and/or digital skills.

At City Lit, in order to facilitate online learning for users of BSL, it has been necessary to create our own step by step videos in BSL explaining how to use software like Zoom or Google Classrooms as many of our Deaf students cannot fully engage with and understand written English text.

As with all online teaching, there is no one method or software which universally works and so we are having to use a number of different types of software per session in order to deliver our basic offering.  Deaf students also require additional one to one support because group discussions are not workable with multiple small tiles on software such as Zoom or Teams as signs cannot be clearly seen.

Isolation and wellbeing

Engaging with our Deaf students remotely has been challenging both for the tutors and the students.  Inability to communicate effectively and be understood or understand has led to negative feelings about themselves or their abilities.

“Some students find it frustrating dealing with the whole process: not being able to understand the instructions, being stuck at this or that step, dealing with technical issues.  They get upset and frustrated.  We deal with this also by providing extra support and reassurance. I created a video - embedding English, maths and DS on online learning and explained that students lean these skills on the courses.   These skills will then be with them for the rest of their lives, plus lead to increased employability and will optimise their everyday lives.” Olga Lamb, Tutor of Maths and English for Deaf People.


A 2012 article published in The Lancet[6] warned that Deaf people experience poorer mental health, and are likely to experience poorer physical health. The world’s leading medical journal recognised the health inequalities faced by Deaf people- predominantly due to an inability to communicate effectively on a one to one basis at the convenience of the patient.

Again, the situation has exacerbated existing health inequalities faced by the Deaf community.  Situations where a Deaf adult may have been able to muddle their way through are compounded by the necessary use of PPE by healthcare staff, making lip reading and the judgement of facial expressions impossible.

Action: The Government should compel NHS Commissioners to act on the Guidance for commissioners of primary care mental health services for deaf people published jointly by the Joint Commissioning Panel for Mental Health (JCPMH) and Deaf health charity SignHealth[7]; making equality of access for deaf people a priority.

Learning Disabilities Community

Adults with Learning Disabilities often rely on the stability of routine and their parents and carers treasure the down-time afforded when they are partaking in community activities.  The break in routine and increased anxiety caused by the Coronavirus pandemic has greatly impacted this community.

Continued access to education to combat loneliness and isolation

Understanding that routines must change can be difficult for our students with learning disabilities. Shifting our courses online has been challenging. Digital access is a barrier for many of our students, so to mitigate this we spent a great deal of time speaking with parents and carers to enable student participation, encouraging them to take part and persuading them to help.  We could not have done it without their support, however, we recognise that many parents and carers are juggling multiple responsibilities at this time. Direct contact with students and parents has been essential to help us to maintain vital contacts and minimise the impact of this break in routine and loss of face to face contact.

“Stephen* really misses City Lit. Hands down, it is the best thing Brendan has ever experienced from the education system. We are very grateful to you all.” Stephen’s Father.

Maintaining contact has been especially important for those students living semi independently who are socially isolated. A call from their tutor makes a huge difference when they are unable to access their usual network.

“I liked getting inspiration from your Picasso pictures and I enjoyed choosing different colour pastels. I really enjoyed talking to you on the phone - it was very helpful of you to tell me what colour to use on the face in my Picasso self-portrait. I am looking forward to next week.” Trisha, a student with Learning Disabilities

“Trisha is really missing her Art Workshop classes at City Lit. Michael's Google Classroom session on Wednesday was a great success. The clear, online instructions and uploaded images, helped her to quickly understand what to do and she so enjoyed being able to chat to Michael a couple of times during the day after emailing photos of her work in progress. The continuation of these sessions will definitely provide her with much needed structure to her week.” Trisha’s Mum

Action: The Government should ensure there is protected funding for provision which focuses on maintaining some semblance of routine for adults with learning disabilities,  ensuring they are able to maintain connections and combat the isolation which the change in routine and loss of face to face contact causes.

Students with Learning Disabilities often require support not only in educational settings, but more broadly in community settings. The effects of the COVID19 crisis will be felt at an individual level, for example in terms of effects on mental health, and these may be compounded by a loss of community support where public and VCSE organisations are closed or reduced in capacity by the economic effects of the pandemic. There is the concern that this may, in turn, affect students’ ability to access or complete courses, and additional alternate resources may need to be put in place to provide sufficient support for these students in the community.

Action: The Government should commit to ensuring alternatives are available to adults with Learning Disabilities so that their quality of life is not impacted by the closure or reduction of services tailored specifically to them.

Communication with adults with Learning Disabilities

As with communication to Deaf people, adults with Learning Disabilities need information which is differentiated for them and designed for their ease of understanding.  Our partners at Beyond Words, a charity that provides books and training to support people who find pictures easier to understand than words, are supporting individuals with Learning Disabilities or communication difficulties.  Their resources empower people through pictures.

They very swiftly responded to the Coronavirus pandemic by creating a series of books[8] dealing with protecting yourself from Coronavirus, to dealing with lockdown and understanding a death due to Coronavirus.

Action: The Government should ensure there is protected provision for UK citizens who, due to their protected characteristic, require their important information to be differentiated for them by a specialist charity or organisation.